When I reviewed Christopher Hitchens’ autobiographical memoir, Hitch-22, a year ago I described him as larger and more generous-hearted than his prejudices and spleen would suggest. I still stand by this, having now read this very fat volume of essays on politics, religion and literature, collected over the last decade. In that earlier book Hitchens had compiled lists of what he loved and what he hated: in the “hate” column he had put “dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation”, while in the “love” column he had put “literature, irony, humour, the individual, defence of free expression, friendship.” I am sure he would still stand by those highly characteristic lists which are reflected in his essays and reviews here. I am also sympathetic to this list – leaving aside the little word “religion”.
The first thing to be said about this collection is that Hitchens is a very good writer on his chosen themes: ironic, enquiring and restlessly intelligent. Though often arrogant in his opinions and suffering fools very badly, he does not fall for the sound of his own voice and is incapable of platitudes or jargon. He is always challenging, even when his limitations are evident – largely his inability to recognise that religious faith can be something other than unreason or bigotry. He is also extremely well-read; reviewing books is for him a serious business; an exercise in discriminating judgements, involving comparison between several writers and making fine distinctions between them.
In his introduction he informs us that his journalism is still concerned with fighting “the old unchanging enemies – racism, leader-worship, superstition”. He adds, as a man of his ironic sensibilities would, that “the people who must never have power are the humourless.” It must be borne in mind that when putting this book together Hitchens had already been diagnosed with throat cancer. As he has noted with courage and mordant humour in a series of articles in Vanity Fair, his cancer has reached “stage four” – and there is no “stage five”. Without self-pity or sentimentality, he remarks that “some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last”.
Perhaps the intimations of mortality have made him include too much in this volume: there is some expendable ephemera alongside more considered pieces. Reviewing a book about JFK by Robert Dallek, he is predictably critical of the late president but devotes unnecessary space to his sexual exploits. Again, although it sounds accurate that in his later writings, Gore Vidal displayed “the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity” (Vanity Fair, 2010) was it worth including an essay on him at all?
Hitchens is usually at his best when his moral indignation and his lively imagination combine, as in his essay for Vanity Fair of 1999, “Old Enough to Die”, concerning capital punishment and its unhappy victims in the US. He writes brilliantly about what it is like to endure the water-boarding torture, which he undergoes in order to know what he is writing about; and there is also superb reportage about fearsomely inhospitable places like North Korea, about which he comments in “Worse than 1984” (Slate 2005): “Not even in the lowest moments of the Third Reich, or of the Gulag, or of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, was there a time when all the subjects of the system were actually enslaved.”
In another essay he gives a graphic description of the inhabitants of this (literally) benighted country: “Starved and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult…” (Slate, 2010). One senses that attacking the results of human folly and wickedness with all the considerable force of his pen is Hitchens’ substitute for a religious purpose.
Not surprisingly, I preferred his essays on literature to those on politics and religion. Party and national politics tend to shift and sway and religion, as I have indicated, is not something he understands or has any sympathy with; but his thoughts on novelists are stimulating, and there are insightful pieces on Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, John Buchan, Graham Greene and others. Of the last, and clearly a reference to his own time as foreign correspondent, he remarks, “You could divide the eager freelance into roughly three types: those who had been influenced by Scoop (Waugh), those who had been influenced by Homage to Catalonia (Orwell) and those who took their tone from The Quiet American (Greene). Naturally one infers that Hitchens took his own tone from Orwell.
The essay on Wodehouse, a review of Robert McCrum’s biography, is particularly sympathetic and borne of close familiarity with the works, explaining – so as to excuse – the controversial broadcasts from Germany during the war that took Wodehouse into permanent exile in the States, where “He managed, with that providence that sometimes protects the terminally innocent, to escape into a third act of his life.”
With his love of fine prose and his ear for poetry Hitchens is highly responsive to the wisdom and beauty of the prose of the King James Bible; but while expostulating against the Church of England for producing a limp, updated version, he shows again the limits of his understanding when he writes that the abandonment of the KJB “is yet another demonstration that religion is man-made, with inky human fingerprints all over its supposedly inspired and unalterable texts.” It demonstrates nothing of the sort, only proving that men will always meddle, rushing in where angels fear to tread.
Hitchens describes himself somewhere in this volume as a “wheezing, paunchy scribbler”. He is more than that, though I suspect that in the long term his writings are perishable rather than the opposite. Among his acknowledgements at the end of this collection he mentions his children whom he loves and “who also represent all that I can ever hope to claim by way of futurity.” This is, I think, a correct estimate; Hitchens is too much of a controversialist, with too much of the bilious and the “Arguably” stance to his thought, to claim a permanent place in letters, the place where, for instance, Orwell and Waugh (whom he underestimates) will surely stand.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.